Jury selection begins today in the New York case against R. Kelly, who is facing more than 20 years in prison if convicted. Federal prosecutors allege that the singer engaged in a decades-long pattern of preying on young women and girls for the purpose of coercing sex. According to the indictment, Kelly’s criminal racketeering centered on the sexual exploitation of five “Jane Doe” victims, including the transportation of women and girls across state lines to engage in illegal sexual activity.
The case against Kelly has been widely heralded as a Me Too–era turning point. As the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney put it, “This indictment makes clear that fame and power will not shield anyone from prosecution, particularly predators who victimize vulnerable members of our communities for their own sexual gratification.” Even so, the limits of this development are as significant as the progress it marks. Still today, as Me Too continues to reverberate, powerful men remain mostly protected from consequences for their abuse. Understanding why — why it took so long to get here with Kelly, and why countless abusers will escape justice — is essential to transforming an enduring culture of impunity.
The answer, in part: Kelly’s victims were surrounded by people who didn’t care enough to help. While the collective indifference to their well-being was extreme, this indifference is not exceptional. It’s systemic, and an integral part of what I call the credibility complex. Without realizing it, we’re shaped by a cluster of forces that corrupt our judgments, making us too quick to discount the credibility of accusers and inflate the credibility of men accused. The most vulnerable women experience the steepest credibility discounts, while men with social status and privilege benefit from the largest credibility boosts.
A finding of credibility encompasses not simply a belief that the abuse happened, but also the belief that it matters. Just as determinations about trustworthiness are meted out in ways that correspond to social power, so too is our care distributed unevenly and predictably: The suffering of an abuser who could face accountability for his misdeeds matters far more than the suffering of his victim. I call it the care gap. Because care is distributed along lines of power, we tend to care less about some victims than others. Marginalized accusers are the most readily dismissed.
In 1994, a 27-year-old Kelly illegally married his protégé Aaliyah, then 15 years old and too young to legally wed. Although their union was later annulled, accounts of Kelly abusing teenage girls continued to surface. By the late 1990s, several women sued Kelly, claiming he abused them when they were underage.
Then, in 2002, at the peak of his career, Kelly was charged with multiple counts of child pornography, discovered when a videotape was sent anonymously to the Chicago Sun-Times. Kelly’s yearslong trial featured a video that allegedly depicted Kelly having sex with, and urinating on, a 14-year-old girl who called him “Daddy.” Still, despite the best efforts of prosecutors, Kelly was found not guilty — an acquittal that “concretized a message that Black girls are disposable,” as the writer Ida Harris observed.
That Kelly’s many accusers have thus far been denied legal redress is no anomaly. The protection of rape law has long been withheld from the most vulnerable victims. This overlook is an offshoot, and a driver, of the care gap. When Black women were slaves, their rape — whether by white masters or by Black men — was lawful. In keeping with this approach, when the Mississippi Supreme Court dismissed charges against a male slave in 1859, it made clear that the rape of a young Black girl was not a crime. “Masters and slaves can not be governed by the same system or laws; so different are their positions, rights and duties,” wrote the court. Other state courts reached the same conclusion, dismissing indictments where the victim was not white.
Change was slow and incomplete. In 1860, the Mississippi legislature criminalized the rape of a Black girl under the age of 12 by a Black man, while still allowing the rape of Black women and the rape of Black girls by white men. Rape statutes finally became race-neutral after the Civil War. But harm to Black women and girls often went untouched by law, and this remains true today.
“The fact his victims have been dismissed has everything to do with the fact they are Black girls,” dream hampton, one of the executive producers behind the critically acclaimed 2019 documentary Surviving R. Kelly, stressed to Harris in her Elle interview.
Kelly’s alleged abuse was well-known in certain circles for decades. (Kelly denies the allegations against him.) In his book Soulless, music critic Jim DeRogatis identifies 48 victims of Kelly’s abuse. “Just as disturbing,” DeRogatis writes, “I put the number of people who knew about or witnessed that damage in the thousands.” Among them, DeRogatis mentions employees of record studios and labels, radio stations, magazines, newspapers, hotels, restaurants, high-end gyms, and nightclubs. Also on the list are Kelly’s lawyers, accountants, drivers, security guards, and fellow musicians. “Blame a lack of empathy and morality almost as sickening as Kelly’s,” DeRogatis explains.
It’s tempting to think that the reason Kelly managed to prey on so many young women for so many years was that no one knew what was happening. But this easy narrative lets far too many people — thousands, according to DeRogatis — off the hook. People around Kelly benefited from his phenomenal stardom and flourishing career. Fans loved his music and wanted more of it. Kelly escaped accountability because his continued success was worth more than the lives of his victims.
Our tendency to elevate the importance of abusers exacerbates the care gap. When our concern for the accused man and the harm he’ll suffer if held to account outweighs our concern for his victim, we don’t act. It will come as no surprise that powerful men benefit most from this excess of cultural regard. For those already situated at the top and for those with a recognized entitlement to a “bright future,” fame, fortune, and prominence confer impunity. The culture that supports and affirms these men exerts a powerful gravitational pull toward protecting them.
As R. Kelly’s trial unfolds, we can expect to see powerful evidence of how the credibility complex harms some victims more than others. Most notably, Black girls and women are at an extreme disadvantage when their worth is stacked against their abusers’. “No one particularly cares that they are being abused,” writes Moya Bailey, a feminist and critical race studies scholar who coined the term “misogynoir.” At the same time, Black girls are often treated like fully developed adults, rather than children who require care — what researchers call “adultification.” Because they are seen as less in need of “protection and nurturing” than white girls, Black girls’ sexual violation tends to matter least.
Should Kelly be convicted, it will communicate a different, powerful message. Philosopher Jean Hampton, among others who identify the expressive theory of punishment, has suggested that punishing an offender can equalize the social standing of the victim. When a person is violated, her status is diminished. The abuser has treated her as less valuable than he, which is not what she deserves. Punishment of the abuser communicates that this is wrong and affirms the opposite proposition: The victim is no less important than he. On the contrary, she is valued, respected, and worthy of protection.
But it would be a mistake to think that one conviction, however meaningful, can eliminate the care gap. This work falls not just to prosecutors, but to anyone in the position of judging the credibility of a family member, co-worker, or friend — most of us, at one time or another. It’s easy not to see ourselves as complicit when a powerful man gets a pass. But faulty credibility determinations are not confined to the criminal-justice system, and this reality implicates every one of us.
Deborah Tuerkheimer is the author of the forthcoming Credible: Why We Doubt Accusers and Protect Abusers.